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Traveling--and Unraveling the Mysteries of Jewishness

April 16, 1989|JANICE ARKATOV

As befits a founding member of A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Naomi Newman is once again on the road.

"Even if we were called The Stay-at-Home Jewish Theatre, there's no one else doing our work," said the actress-writer, whose solo piece, "Snake Talk: Urgent Messages from the Mother" is playing through May 14 at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood.

"Traveling is an essential part of our economic survival. But I also think it's what we're meant to be doing. And it's appropriate."

In the piece, Newman--with the help of some quick-change costuming, lighting and vocal adjustments--plays three very different women.

Artist Elsa is the "prophetic voice," she says. Rivke is the "cosmic yenta, the archetypal Jewish mother . . . representing the hard-earned wisdom of the oral tradition; she teaches you how to be a mensch --a full human being." And the garrulous Hag, the actress says, "speaks the truths nobody wants to hear."

Assembled from bits of improvisational work with collaborator-director Martha Boesing, Newman feels that the piece represents an opportune union of art and life.

"I don't think art is ever planned. It comes from some unknown place; what you do is make room for it, open the door to it. When I say to my friends, 'Isn't this weird: Here I am, 58 years old, on the road--I should've done this 20 years ago,' they say, 'You couldn't have. You didn't have the life experience.'

"It's true. 'Snake Talk' really is about my life: my Jewishness, my feminism, my Buddhist practice, my work with cancer patients, raising my kids. . . ."

-- --

Her original life goal, Newman noted, was to sing. "My parents were not religious," she said, recalling her childhood in Detroit. "They were what we used to call linkers : leftists, politically radical. And Yiddishists--for them, the sense of Jewish identity was cultural. When I was growing up, we never went to temple. We had Seders, but my father wrote his own Haggada , and it was very political. My sister would play the piano, and I'd sing Yiddish songs."

After a move to Los Angeles in the '40s, Newman began studying classically and earned a degree in music from UCLA. Later, as a young mother (she now has two grown daughters), she began taking acting lessons, with Jeff Corey. From that came a 1968 introduction to "improv guru" Del Close--which led to work with the Committee Workshop and the Synergy Trust. A divorce necessitated a larger income, so Newman went back to school, became a practicing therapist and worked at the Center for the Healing Arts in Santa Monica.

"Nowadays we'd call that a workaholic," she said wryly. Her next husband (the actress is recently divorced from No. 3) wanted her to cut back, so she eased up on the social work. But not the theater. In 1978, she, Corey Fisher and Albert Greenberg founded A Traveling Jewish Theatre; four years ago, the collective relocated to San Francisco.

"Sometimes its a gypsy life," she admitted. "Two years ago, I was six months on the road. Then I had a quiet year. Now I'm here for two months, then to Switzerland, then back for the American Festival at Cornell, then to Minnesota, maybe New York. The funny thing is, I'm such a homing pigeon. Once I get on the road it's fine--but every time I have to leave, it's torture. When I'm home, I hardly leave the house. When I go to the market, I can't wait to get back home."

Newman sees "Snake Talk" as "very much a Jewish show." She nodded. "But it's as much a woman's show, a political show and a spiritual show. It comes from women, but it's for women and men. In Berkeley, we had women coming out from every group: the radically political, lesbians, conservative Jewish, liberal Jewish, theologians.

"My sense of cultural identification is that it's a bridging process, not a cutting-off process," she said matter-of-factly. "So even though it's a Jewish show, it's something anyone could relate to. We've played Stockholm, Denmark, Hamburg--and there ain't a lot of Jews there. The difference has less to do with where we are than the people: There are responsive audiences and non-responsive audiences."

Some of the most difficult ones, Newman noted, are often Jewish. "If the people coming are Jews interested in being Jewish, culturally and spiritually, and also open to new theater forms--that's good. But if they're very conservative, and they come expecting old-fashioned Yiddish theater or 'Fiddler on the Roof' or Molly Picon, they're going to be very disappointed."

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